At its Aug. 3 meeting, the Grand County Commission voted to reinstate mandatory mask-wearing in county facilities when the COVID-19 transmission level in Grand County, as determined by the state of Utah, is classified as “high.” Unvaccinated people are required to wear masks regardless of the community transmission level.
Commissioners wanted to ensure that public places like the library are safe for everyone, including children who are too young to receive vaccines and others who may be at greater risk of infection from COVID-19. Officials noted, however, that some individuals would continue to find mask-wearing controversial.
“It’s harder to get people to go back to something they didn’t care to do in the first place, ” Commission Chair Mary McGann noted.
The county’s previous policy was that fully vaccinated individuals did not need to wear masks, but new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control has prompted the county to reexamine the issue.
As of July 27, CDC guidance advised everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, to wear masks in indoor public spaces in high-transmission areas in response to nationwide COVID-19 case increases caused by the Delta variant of the virus.
Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have been increasing in nearly all states, including Utah, due to the highly contagious variant. Though still well below the high point in the winter of 2020, recent case rates have been rising from a low point in June.
Differences in how “high” transmission areas are determined can cause confusion: Grand County has a high transmission rate as determined by the CDC. However, according to metrics used by the Utah Department of Health, Grand County currently has a “low” transmission rate.
Southeast Utah Health Department Director Bradon Bradford noted that the CDC’s metrics are more conservative than the state’s measures during the Aug. 3 Grand County Commission meeting. The county is following the state of Utah’s metrics in structuring the updated face-covering policy.
Utah uses three metrics to determine transmission levels: the seven-day average of percent-positive tests, the 14-day case rate per 100,000 people, and the statewide intensive care unit utilization. The CDC uses two metrics to evaluate transmission rates: the number of new cases per 100,000 people and the seven-day average of percent-positive tests.
The draft new policy suggested requiring everyone to wear masks in county facilities in both the moderate and high categories of transmission. This was amended to apply during just high transmission levels during the meeting by Commissioner Kevin Walker, who said that county staff present at the meeting had given the impression that a less restrictive policy would be preferred by most employees.
Bradford said that while data was still evolving, it is clear that the vaccine gives substantial protection against severe infection.
“Basically no vaccine is 100% effective,” Bradford said, “but we do recognize that they prevent serious disease even when we have a breakthrough case.”
If anyone has questions or concerns about the vaccine or would like to make an appointment, Bradford welcomes inquiries at the health department at 435-259-5602.
“We’ll do anything we can to get you scheduled,” he said.
Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff echoed that encouragement.
“The idea of wearing a mask—it’s not so much to protect yourself as to protect people around you,” Sadoff said. Sadoff reported that hospitals in the region to which MRH routinely transfers patients are scarce on ICU beds and MRH is low on staff. Sadoff also said MRH has been seeing younger patients with severe COVID-19 infections than they were seeing before the Delta variant was widespread.
Bradford shared some current state and local statistics on the virus: in all long-term care facilities within the SEUHD’s district, which includes Emery and Carbon counties, about 91% of residents are vaccinated, though only 56% of staff are vaccinated. Bradford said that in Grand County, the percentage of vaccinated staff in long-term care facilities is at 70%.
“Grand County has done very well in comparison to the rest of the state, a combination of personal decision making and some incentivizing through businesses,” Bradford said, noting that the county “never seemed to follow the trends” of the region or state.
Bradford said he appreciates Grand County’s receptiveness to the vaccine, though there is still a substantial population of eligible residents who have not been vaccinated.
Sadoff offered a parting thought: “One hundred percent of our health care providers, our physicians, have chosen to get vaccinated at MRH,” she said. “So if your doctor is a good guide for you, follow in their footsteps.”